The Real Folly
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a major person in our seminary theological education at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Even in the late 60s and early 70s he was still greatly admired and revered for his personal sacrifice made in fighting the Nazi madness, and for his writings. Both his The Cost of Discipleship and his Letters and Papers From Prison were used in many classes, discussed often. Naturally they were written in German and translated into English. The German words for folly (torheit), meaning “the result of a foolish action or enterprise, or weakness or derangement of mind”; and stupid (dumm), meaning “silly, stupid, idiotic, brainless, or inane”, are two quite different words—and they do not mean the same thing. The expanded and definitive edition of Letters…is the 1971 version edited by Eberhard Bethge, published by The Macmillan Co.
In that edition the word used is “folly” not “stupid”. What Bonhoeffer actually wrote about the nature of folly is “that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect”–which reads and means much different than saying “that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one”–for Bonhoeffer was always concerned with the moral and ethical issues, and knew them to be essential, as moral and ethical actions were essential to his understanding of what it meant to be and act as a Christian, and he would have never merely suggested that it is some form of “human” problem as if separated from moral and ethical decisions and actions. He believed that Hitler’s and the Nazi’s actions were immoral and unethical, and overly dangerously so that it led him to participate in what came to be known as “the officers’ plot” to kill Hitler (dramatized in the movie “Valkyrie”, though Bonhoeffer is not mentioned in it). While he believed killing was immoral and unethical, he reasoned that it was better to kill one man than to allow that man and his followers to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
His use of “folly” also gives the following a much different essential meaning (than what was quoted in “It’s Not Dumbing Down, It’s Stupid”), “We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make [italics in the translation] fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them.” He was convinced that too many of the German people were both making fools of themselves, and allowing Hitler and his leaders to make fools of them. But he also knew that what the Allies did after WWI to punish the German people, crippling their economy, making a majority of a very proud people poor and hungry, had set the stage for a Hitler to come along and more easily convince them that he and his policies could “make Germany great again”, restore their prosperity and power, and he did so by pointing an extremely harsh, blaming finger at the Jews as the primary cause of their problems. Hitler hated the Jews, not because they were the actual cause of Germany’s problems (which they were not), but because a Jewish doctor had failed to save his very sick, and exceedingly close and overprotective mother, so she died–a little known, but very true, fact. Bonhoeffer would even write of his struggle with the Hitler/Nazi problem, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are humiliating.”
He would also write in these “letters”, “There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow-men…The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of himself. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves…The only profitable relationship to others—and especially to our weaker brethren—is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them.” [He wrote in the 40s so all his pronouns are masculine.] This means, obviously, that he would not have called other humans “stupid”, or “idiotic”, or “brainless”, as the German word for stupid means—for he well understood that this was too demeaning, dismissive, and “drifting into an attitude of contempt toward humanity”.
There is not likely a true Bonhoeffer scholar or biographer on the planet who would agree with a column that suggests too many people are “stupid”, in which only Hillary Clinton is named, as if she is the one who is “making” people stupid, when Donald Trump is being virtually daily exposed as a con man who is really trying to dupe people, hoping they are as stupid as he seems to think they are, while he points an extremely harsh, blaming finger at Muslims and immigrants as the primary source of what he claims to be most all of our problems. His claims that Japan and South Korea should get their own nuclear weapons alone is enough to disqualify him, most especially when religious and faith leaders all over the world for decades, along with over 100 former generals and admirals, many commanders of nuclear weapons forces, have called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way DT is scapegoating others in a way that is the very demonstration of the “folly” about which he wrote, and about which he was so concerned over its dangerous consequences that he was willing to put his life on the line in an attempt to kill Hitler so as to save millions—and it cost him his life. It’s not dumbing down, and it’s not stupid people that are the problem, it is dangerous and likely deadly folly to follow any man who is conning everyone he can while seeking the office of President of the United States. Using Bonhoeffer to suggest that such folly is because of stupidity is the ultimate insult to that great Lutheran pastor and theologian.
Rodney Noel Saunders
United Methodist Pastor, Retired